Last year's New York Knicks defense was a mess. Good thing the current squad has a new cleaning service.
The Knicks switched up management and coaching staffs this offseason, making the jump from Mike Woodson to Derek Fisher on the bench and adding Phil Jackson to oversee all things basketball. And if there's one part of the game coaching can seriously impact, it's defense.
For now, the Knicks coaching staff is a relative unknown. It's hard enough to evaluate coaches from afar without seeing them in practice and off the court. It becomes nearly impossible to make those sorts of judgments about a guy like Fisher, who's never coached a game in his life.
What we do know about Fisher and Jackson though, is that they aren't Woodson, who watched the Knicks plummet to a bottom-of-the-league defense last season.
The 2013-14 Knicks finished 24th in points allowed per possession. On top of their lack of defensive personnel, they were one of the worst-communicating defenses in the league.
Woodson implemented a defense that switched almost as much as his mind did. The Knicks would change up defenders on screens as often as any other team in the league. But after two months of coaching a defense that switched like a light panel, Woodson told ESPNNewYork's Ian Begley at the end of December that there would be changes:
I don't want to switch. I've always wanted to put the emphasis on our perimeter guys to guard perimeter players. Bigs are supposed to guard bigs and when there's some breakdowns there is supposed to be help. It's a team defense.
We've had our problems in that area. Those are things that were trying to correct because if we do it right, and we have ... it works. I've just got to get us going a little bit more consistently.
There was one problem, though: After Woodson made those comments, the Knicks kept switching on screens...sometimes. Because of that indecision, guys often ran to the wrong spots on defense. It wasn't uncommon to see one Knick switch and the other continue to defend the same man, leaving a dribbler, a screener, or an off-ball cutter wide open. And on the whole, the team continued to switch indiscriminately on picks.
This strategy can work on certain rosters. You need athletic, versatile and intelligent defenders who are capable of guarding both bigs and wings. But the Knicks, whose big men last year had questionable court awareness and whose guards struggled to fight through screens and find the right spots to defend on the court, didn't have that sort of flexibility.
Want to set a defense up to fail? Take a group that communicates poorly and put them in a system that relies on communication more than anything else.
Thus was the problem with the Knicks. But some of that can change this year, even though Derek Fisher's team has probably downgraded its defensive talent after trading Tyson Chandler away to the Dallas Mavericks.
As much as Chandler struggled last season, he was still one of the Knicks' best defenders when he could stay on the floor, and he was surely one of their best communicators. But defense is the end of the floor a coach can affect most, and Fisher has a shot to help a team that struggled with its execution last season.
We still don't necessarily know what kind of coach Fisher will be in the upcoming season, but we did get a taste of his philosophies from the summer Knicks.
The Knicks implemented a basic ICE pick-and-roll coverage during summer league, shying away from the aggressive switching that became a Woodson staple. The strategy, possibly the most-common pick-and-roll defense in the league, drives ball-handlers to the out-of-bounds lines and lets big men comfortably sag back.
As Knickerblogger's David Crockett (no, not that Davy Crockett) wrote in July, a more traditional man defense will probably be in the cards for this team:
Keep in mind that you’re likely to see pretty vanilla defensive scheming in Summer League for any number of reasons. So, a switching fetish is not out of the realm of possibility once the season starts and Calderon starts yelling “Git that!” at the sight of the first high ball screen. But still, based on what I’ve seen in a game-and-a-half my impression is that Fisher’s Knicks will play a fairly traditional man defense.
Guards will be expected to stay with their assignment, fighting through screens and such. Bigs will still help on drivers, but without the incessant auto-switching. The team has added Sam Dalembert, Jason Smith, and (technically) Cole Aldrich and Melo through free agency and trade. Add STAT and Bargnani to the frontcourt. Then take away Tyson Chandler. That’s a strong signal that the team will play pretty traditional man.
Still, the Knicks don't really have the personnel to execute many of these sets to an elite degree.
How many distinctly above-average defenders does this team have? Iman Shumpert? Cole Aldrich, who has never averaged double-digit minutes a night in his career?
Samuel Dalembert—acquired in the Chandler trade—is capable. So is Jason Smith. And other than that, there isn't anyone expected to be in the rotation who has shown an ability to guard on a consistent basis.
Lineup combinations are going to mean as much for defensive performance as anything else. The Knicks probably need a big who can defend on the floor at all times.
Bold statement, right?
Last year's lineups were a little funky at times. Pre-Andrea Bargnani injury, the Knicks would often leave themselves without a rim-protector on the floor, playing Bargs at the 5 and pairing him with Carmelo Anthony or even Amar'e Stoudemire, who still has offensive value but is a revolving door in pick-and-roll defense. Those units yielded disastrous results.
If the Knicks continue to play Bargnani at the 5, the defense will probably struggle, even though his skill as a post defender can be overly criticized. The Italian doesn't have mobility in the open court and tangles his ankles up off the ball like he's tripping over shoelaces.
That's how the Knicks allowed 107.0 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor last season. The problem increased even more when Stoudemire, another non-defender, shared the court with him. The Knicks gave up a whopping 112.6 points per 100 possessions in those scenarios.
Let's put that in perspective.
Lineup choices could make or break this team. It's partly why, as I wrote about last week, Aldrich might deserve more minutes on this roster than he's ever received in the past.
With a new philosophy, the Knicks can get better. But even if this becomes one of the best-coached teams in the league, the Knicks non-defensive roster puts a relatively low ceiling on their ability to guard.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com, WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.
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